German Peace Prize for Photography awarded to Sebastian Wells and Vsevolod Kazarin

In 1648, the peace of Münster and Osnabrück, ending the Thirty Years’ War that had raged across vast swathes of Europe, established sovereignty and territorial integrity as the basic organizing principles for the modern state. As Kalevi Holsti reminds us, the Treaties of Westphalia were unique: “Europe had not previously witnessed a multilateral diplomatic gathering that was designed both to terminate a pan-European war and to build some sort of order out of the chaos into which Europe had increasingly fallen since the late fifteenth century” (1991: 25).

Despite diverse forms of political, economic and social integration, the principle of state sovereignty remains, in R.B.J. Walker’s terms, “the crucial modern political articulation of all spatiotemporal relations” (1993: 6), determining an inside and an outside and, with it, spaces of possibility: “meaningful political community within states” and nothing more than “transient modes of accommodation between them” (p. 13).

It is appropriate, then, that 375 years after the signing of the Treaties of Westphalia, the German Peace Prize for Photography is awarded to two photographers – Sebastian Wells (born 1996) and Vsevolod Kazarin (born 2000) – who engage with the most recent violation of the principles stipulated in the Treaties of Westphalia, the Russian assault on Ukraine.

The German Peace Prize for Photography

honors works that conceptually and artistically interpret the topic of “Peace” by means of the medium of photography. Here, the term peace may be very broadly interpreted. For example, it may express peace between peoples, peaceful coexistence in a country or a family, or the inner peace of individuals. There are no limitations set with regard to the photographic genre. The photographs submitted could well be, for instance, journalistic works or portraits or landscapes.

In 2023, the prize honors Wells and Kazarin’s work Young People Photographed in Kyiv, April and May 2022. Rather than following standard photojournalistic paradigms, the photographers chose to offer an alternative photographic representation of young people in the first months after the attack, an approach that combines documentary photography with impulses borrowed from fashion photography.

The result is surprising; most viewers, conditioned by photojournalism, would not expect such images to be taken in a context dominated by war violence. However, Wells and Kazarin show what can be called a form of micro-resistance: young people refusing to succumb to the logic and dynamics of violence and destruction. Instead, they insist on expressions of individual identity in a situation where identity tends to disappear behind dualistic formulas such as we versus them (both groups conceived of as coherent) and standard, interchangeable photographic representations focusing on destruction and human suffering.

Succumbing, photographically and otherwise, to the logic of violence confirms this logic; refusing to accept it is an act of resistance, visualizing alternatives. Such visualization should not be dismissed as naïve. Research has indeed shown that victims of violence are not only passive victims but individuals exhibiting agency by applying diverse coping mechanisms that enable them to live with some degree of decency in adverse conditions. These mechanisms can be photographed. That most of them do not decisively influence the overall patterns of violence does not limit their importance.

Such coping mechanisms include laughter and irony as well as cultural and everyday activities with which (some kind of) normality can be maintained. Recourse to artistic forms of expression is one such mechanism, as Wells and Kazarin’s images show.

In addition to Wells and Kazarin, the following photographers and projects were nominated:

Yagazie Emezi (Lagos, Nigeria), Another Tale by Moonlight
Aljoscha (Düsseldorf, Germany), Project Hope
César Dezfuli (Madrid, Spain), Passengers
Mattia Velati (Milan, Italy), Yemen: Beauty on the Edge of War

The photographs are on show in Museumsquartier Osnabrück until 6 August 2023.

You can find the images and more information here.

Holsti, Kalevi J. (1991) Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order 1648–1989. Cambridge University Press.  
Walker, R.B.J. (1993) Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory. Cambridge University Press.